Cheryl Ferguson’s ambitious new book,Highland Park and River Oaks: The Origins of Garden Suburban Community Planning in Texas, describes an important period in the development of the contemporary suburban American city. While historically, the typical European-American city from 1492 on was a fairly compact, pre-planned grid-iron affair, perfectly illustrated in the seemingly endless parade of checkerboards in John Reps’ classic book, The Making of Urban America (1965), after a several hundred year run, this pattern was superseded by a new model, first appearing on a large scale in the early 1900s. Ferguson’s new book examines the emergence of this kind of development, which she calls the “garden suburban community,” particularly as it appeared in Dallas and Houston between the 1910s and 20s.
Characteristics distinguishing the new garden suburb—often called “additions” since they literally were just that, extensions of the existing city grid—from the old model included their increasingly large size, their street patterns that included curved and cul-de-sac streets, sophisticated advertising campaigns, and extensive restrictive covenants. According to their backers, these highly controlled developments, usually located beyond the boundaries of their host city, were a place of escape “from the pressure, congestion, and corruption of urban life.” They were presented as models of modern planning for fast-growing American cities in the era before zoning became widely adopted. Ferguson begins the book with a concise history of planning in both Houston and Dallas as well as with a discussion of important real estate developments in both cities from the 1850s up to the 1920s. She intersperses these chapters with references to such model suburban communities as Roland Park in Baltimore, Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, and the Country Club District in Kansas City, which directly influenced developments in Texas.
The first example of the modern garden suburb in Texas was Highland Park in Dallas, developed on a tract of 1,326 acres four-and-a-half miles from downtown that was purchased by John S. Armstrong in 1906. In 1907 he, along with his sons in law, Hugh E. Prather and Edgar L. Flippen, commissioned the Los Angeles landscape architect Wilbur David Cook, Jr., known for planning Beverly Hills, to plan the first section of Highland Park. This section was the first in Texas to be planned as an enclave rather than as an extension of the existing city street grid. It featured a pattern of winding roadways that followed the picturesque bends of Turtle Creek. Later sections that included a comprehensive system of parks and parkways were planned by the St. Louis landscape architect, George E. Kessler. In Houston, this model was first successfully adopted in 1924 when Will and Mike Hogg and their associate, Hugh Potter, bought out the nearly bankrupt County Club Estates subdivision, designed by Houston landscape architect Herbert A. Kipp about three-and-a-half miles west of downtown, and increased its size from 178 acres to 1,100 acres. Throughout these chapters, Ferguson includes sections pertaining to the design of significant houses and commercial buildings in these developments. The final chapter examines garden suburbs that used Highland Park and River Oaks as their model in other Texas cities, including Forth Worth, Wichita Falls, Amarillo, Corsicana, and San Antonio.
While the book is a good reference and contains a lot of detailed information that should be of interest to the inhabitants of these communities, the general public, and other historians, it has some shortcomings. One is the jumpy organization. Rather than breaking up the sections by subject, it might have been better to organize them chronologically. Ferguson, for example, discusses Country Club Estates in Houston because it is included in the general overview of planning in Texas before Highland Park, even though it was actually planned about 15 years later and was influenced by its Dallas predecessor in ways that the reader does not know until the next chapter. Another is the generally mediocre quality of the illustrations. Especially when compared to the captivating photographs by Richard Cheek for Stephen Fox’s The Country Houses of John F. Staub (2007), about the most prominent architect to work in River Oaks, or to those by Steve Clicque for Virginia McAlester’s The Homes of the Park Cities, Dallas (2008), the photographs is this book, most of which were taken by amateur photographers, seem to fall flat. Also, in an age of easy scanning, it is surprising to see so many hard to read maps and plans.
Although the garden suburb seems to have a lot to offer as a model for urban planning—good looks, nice houses, attractive winding streets, strong property values—all of these come at a substantial cost. The logic of the garden suburb is ultimately that of the enclave. Rather than reforming the fabric of the existing city, which was the method used prior to the 20th century—Baron Haussmann’s reconstruction and modernization of the historic core of Paris from the 1850s through the 1870s is perhaps the best example—the garden suburb, instead, casts the host city as an incorrigible “other” that because of inherent organizational flaws cannot be repaired and must be abandoned. The garden suburb achieves superficial success as an alternate model precisely because of its homogeneity, which is the carefully orchestrated result of its highly restrictive legal and physical restrictions. As an advertisement for River Oaks knowingly explained, “You will have good neighbors, you may be sure… neighbors who are your kind of people.” Blacks and Hispanics were banned outright from purchasing property in the wording of the restrictive covenants. To provide minority service workers for Highland Park, Flippen and Prather developed the nearby Booker T. Washington Addition, while in River Oaks, property owners complained to Hugh Potter that “the lack of adequate bus service created a serious shortage of servants.” Jews, Whites of Southern European ancestry, and Asians were frequently prohibited from purchasing property by unwritten “gentlemen’s agreements.” While there were sections of Highland Park and River Oaks marketed to somewhat less affluent buyers, minimum construction cost requirements combined with restrictions on duplexes and apartments effectively prevented anyone of less than upper middle class income from living in either community. Finally, their distance from major employment centers and lack of public transportation made them difficult to access for those who did not own a car.
Although this book effectively ends with the Great Depression, it logically could have continued into the New Deal and Postwar years, when many of the fundamental planning and legal concepts pioneered by these developers were adopted on a national level by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and deployed on a large scale across the country. In Houston, for example, Garden Oaks, inaugurated in 1937 as the city’s first FHA-insured subdivision, aped River Oaks, not only in its planning and restrictive covenants, but also in its advertising campaigns. After World War II and continuing right up to the current period, where the restricted enclave—first seen in Highland Park and River Oaks—has become the basic planning unit for all new urban expansion, American cities have changed in profound and not altogether satisfying ways.